Culture shock? Bound to happen

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  • 1. March 2016

A few days prior to my first trip to India, which was on business, I was on a phone call with an Indian colleague, who I was going to meet there. He inquired whether I had been to India before. When I said no, his impish response was “Oh, this will be very interesting for you then.” I considered myself cosmopolitan and well-travelled, so I explained that I had been to various countries on most continents, including developing countries and and alien cultures. He replied with a sentence that I’m not likely to forget anytime soon: “Oh no, trust me, the scale of the chaos is much bigger in India than anywhere else”.

Several trip to India later, I will say this: my colleague hit the nail squarely on the head. I have been to all continents bar Antarctica in the meantime, visited many more exceptional and interesting countries, but India is in a league of its own. Truly extreme, incredible and unparalleled in many ways. I often get the question whether that’s a good thing or not. Hard to answer, everyone needs to decide for themselves in my opinion. My experience is that India polarises its visitors. Many absolutely love it, others do not like it or struggle to cope with the country. There seem to be few opinions between these two extremes.

I consider India a very full-on place, one that is bound to cause a culture shock. The impressions are numerous, strong and long-lasting. India overwhelms you with its abundance of people, smells, noises, cultures, religions, languages, diversity – and a seeming absence of order. From the point of view of an order-obsessed central European, the fact that the country works amounts to a miracle. India is also a country of extreme opposites. Wealth and poverty, beauty and squalidness, arrogance and modesty, life and death, warm-heartedness and inhumanity seem to coexist so closely side by side that it is hard to get your head around it. I guess India is easier to understand with your heart than reason.

“The simple and astonishing truth about India and Indian people is that when you go there, and deal with them, your heart always guides you more wisely than your head. There’s nowhere else in the world where that’s quite so true.”
― Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram

My most interesting experiences in India?

For a start, I’ll talk about my first arrival to India. I touched down at Bangalore Airport late at night and had booked a four-star hotel in the city centre. At the airport I made my way through innumerable taxi wallahs and past many more pick-up services. The taxi ride went through dark, slightly run-down neighbourhoods along streets with little(!) traffic. I was wondering where we were going, really. In a particularly empty and poor street, my driver said we had arrived. This was astonishing since the neighbourhood did not look at all like the bustling centre of a global IT metropolis. Sure enough though, we went down a short driveway and there was my hotel, which – apart from the occasional lack of warm water – was not a bad place to stay at all.

Equally impressive was my first drive to the Bangalore office campus of my employer at the time. The drive, though not very far in terms of distance, took us 1.5 hours through unbelievably congested and chaotic traffic, past more or less poor-looking neighbourhoods, until we suddenly arrived at an entrance gate with strict security. We passed the gate, and suddenly left all the chaos, the dirt and the garbage of the area behind, and entered an immaculately clean office campus. There were stylish buildings with large glass fronts, large grassed areas and busy and impeccably-dressed IT workers. A truly unbelievable contrast, a bit like an oasis in the middle of a desert.

Then there was a cooking class we attended. The class was offered by an elderly woman in Udaipur in her own (very simple and small) kitchen. Her name was Shashi, and she had to make a living on her own after her husband had died a few years before. Her challenge was that she had never gone through any form of professional training, and that she was technically not supposed to work as a cooking instructor, because she was part of the highest caste. She somehow managed to learn English with the help of an English-speaking backpacker she met, and slowly started to offer an Indian cooking class for tourists. What was impressive was the really simplistic kitchen and cooking equipment, which did not prevent her from creating top-notch dishes. (Having said that, our stomachs were slightly strained the next morning by the mix of Indian spices, but this wasn’t because of the food quality but because we weren’t used to them.) She was even recommended by Lonely Planet.

Last but not least, I had a bizarre, politically incorrect if not illegal, experience late one night in Bangalore. We were out in a pub with a few colleagues from work and had a great evening. The bar closed sometime around midnight, but we were in the mood for one last beer at home. So the three of us we were riding a tuk tuk and discussing our needs with the driver. “So, you fancy a beer, then?”, the driver asked. Well of course. The driver made a few calls on his mobile, and eventually picked up a mate of his along the way. A little later the driver stopped the tuk tuk at a junction, leaving the engine running, and his mate disappeared into a side street. Suddenly we heard a sound in the distance, which we very slowly identified as the sound of glass breaking. A minute or two later, his mate came running back to the tuk tuk with a plastic bag full of beers, and off we went at full speed. It took us quite some time before we realised that the beer probably wasn’t acquired in a legal transaction. When we did, we were already back at the house of one of my colleagues, sipping the questionable beer in the garden.

I could go on. My personal bottom line after three trips to India is quite positive. I had next to no trouble in India, and almost always felt welcome and safe. And the food is amazing. I have a number of Indian friends whose sense of humour, warm-heartedness and eagerness to debate I truly appreciate. I need to admit though, that going to India isn’t exactly my idea of a relaxing holiday. I find the country intense, and I need to be in the right mood to fully enjoy being in Bangalore, Delhi, Goa or Mumbai. If the context is right though, an amazing experience is guaranteed.

The photos I am showing below were taken on a trip to India in 2011/12. We visited Udaipur, Jaipur, Dehli, Agra and Goa – a rather touristy but definitely rewarding itinerary. By the way, I also made a short film on this trip.